Saturday, November 28, 2009

Something to Chew On

Is it possible for conservation-minded nature photographers to create work with an artistic slant and still maintain good standing among their peers? More importantly, is it possible for these photographers to positively support the causes that they hold dear, without crossing the line into morally and ethically questionable territory? After all, the world is full of skeptics and any opportunity to denounce certain efforts will surely be pounced upon. These are questions that often keep me up at night.

Everyone has their viewpoints and I am certainly not the wisest in the bunch. However, it seems to me that if photographers cease to feel comfortable exploring creative ways to shed new light on the natural world and its wonders, plight and existence to the viewing public, then are we not ultimately bowing to fickle public perceptions anyway?

I can think of no other photographer that I hold in higher regard than Jim Brandenburg. He has done it all and has shot his fair share of powerful, documentary style images for National Geographic and other high-standing organizations. However, in recent years, artistically toned books such as the incredibly inspiring "Looking for the Summer," have captured the public's imagination. I would wager that this isn't due simply to the subject matter, as painful as it may be for some to admit.

And what of the Frans Lanting's and Art Wolfe's of the world? Does the work of these two goliaths of nature photography, whose work is laden with creative uses of lighting, motion blurs and the like not constitute artistry? Are these two bodies of work now rendered null because of the invention of digital photography and Photoshop? I seriously have my doubts. Besides, if anyone really wants to find out whether an image is authentic or not (like this chronically Googled, truly amazing shot by Thomas P. Peschak) they always have Snopes.

In a perfect world, everyone would be in love with nature just for what it is. The problem is that many (if not most) people simply don't see the natural world like those of us who spend our time desperately trying to show others what it is all about. We know it is amazing and vitally important but there are so many who don't...and don't care, I suspect.

How about the photo at the top of this post? I didn't anything to alter the physical nature of the scene. However, what I did do was use a warming gel on my SB900 flash to change the mood of the image. I also used a wide-angle lens, which altered the angle of the trees to some degree. Does this count as morally objectionable manipulation?

Please share your thoughts with me on this if you wouldn't mind. It would be insightful to hear how other photographers, and non-photographers for that matter, react to this issue. I am certainly still trying to find my own way through the wilderness and company would be most welcome!


Kirk said...

It is a good question Clay. I had similar thoughts and concerns in the past, but any photograph is a manipulation, Ansel Adams taught us that.I used to be straight realist, but I've come to see it in several different lights. One, our image is ours,how we view the world is ours and how we present that will always strike the viewer's emotions. Why else to share? If we only photograph in a strict documentary way, the people we seek to reach, gets bored. To show the viewer the beauty and way of nature I think is necessary. (I'm thinking of Jim Brandenburg's photograph of the eye of the poached deer). Ansel's photographs captured the beauty and also helped a lot in making the public aware of our world. I don't think we can afford not to show nature in an artistic way, we are getting too far removed from nature.

clay bolt said...

Hi Kirk,

Thanks for chiming in! It is good to hear from others who have pondered this as well.

My belief is that there needs to be a variety of different approaches working towards the common goal of protecting wild creatures and places. Some people will be greatly moved by more literal captures and others by those of an artistic nature.

Let's just hope that once all of the pieces are sorted out everyone who has had a stake in fighting for what they love will be given a seat at the table.


MjB said...

This is an interesting topic. I am not a photographer, but a friend and I were talking about a presentation we saw two weeks ago by a well-known nature photographer from the Cincinnati area. The subject of photographic manipulation came up, and the photographer mentioned that some people take multiple photos of the same scene, which when nested together in Photoshop or similar software create an image in which all the elements in the shot, from foreground to background are in perfect focus. Some people aren't going to like such "tricks," but even film photos can be, were, and are, airbrushed and otherwise manipulated. I agree with Kirk's comments.

I think most people understand intuitively at least that a photo is a representation of a slice of life, so to speak--that even the act of deciding where to aim one's camera is an edit or manipulation, and even strictly realistic or documentary photos are in a sense interpretations of the subject matter in the photo. We accept and often enjoy all sorts of techniques used to change or alter or enhance a photo. I think it's all fair game.

The kind of manipulation that I don't think is fair--though it could be considered artistic--would be along the lines of creating fictions and passing them off as documentary. Say I find a dead gull on the beach, decide to photograph it because I like the lighting, the background, etc., but then decide it would be more dramatic if I took the plastic rings from a six-pack and looped them around the gull's neck. That would be a truly cynical manipulation on one hand, if I were to claim my photo was documentary, yet arguably an artistic and acceptable manipulation--by my own standards--on the other.

I'm curious to hear more of what the two of you, as photographers, think about this subject.

Take care,
---Mike Busam

Kirk said...

I would consider posing a subject and the addition of props as artistic. As the artist, you can certainly do whatever you care, it's your work. But if you do so and sell it as editorial work, then you have the chance that it damages other realism. Nat Geo got into some hot water a while back by moving the Pyramids closer together with Photoshop. That helped really get a lot stink started. I do think you need to be careful in how your work gets marketed, most people do want to be taken seriously and if your work gets taken out of context, well the gull really starts to smell bad. I don't pose subjects or add to the image.

clay bolt said...

Mike and Kirk,

Both of you raise excellent points.

Mike, in regards to your gull scenario, the photographer in question should most definitely disclose that the subject was manipulated. However, would this be any different than a macabre version of a still life? Maybe it would be better labeled as a "photographic illustration?" Either way, by revealing that the subject was photographed in a certain way to deliver a point, there is no scandal, and the message stays strong.

Honesty is the key to all of this and the more often that photographers are upfront about how their images are created, the more trust that they stand to gain from the public.

Let me ask this, should there be a photographic petition of integrity that photographers should agree to, or would this be too limiting?

Something else to chew on, perhaps?

Kirk said...

I think the petition would be too limiting. I know there are times when you want to or need to have the freedom to choose what style you may want to do.
There's a whole lot of ethics that this discussion is bringing up. Something else to chew on.

clay bolt said...


I agree that a petition –or contract– would be too limiting. In all honesty, as I alluded to in my original post, the public will believe what they will. There are going to be believers, or those who use good judgment as to which images depict a 'real' moment, and those who will doubt everything. What is a guy to do?